Monday Mornings with Madison

Do We Still Need To Dress For Success?

Past studies have repeatedly shown that people judge companies, in part, by the outward appearance of its employees.  Likewise, employers evaluate employees, in part, on their ‘professionalism’ which includes appearance.  Over the years, research has validated that there is a bias in favor of well-dressed, well-groomed, good-looking people.  Indeed, for decades if not centuries, it has been widely understood that the visual aesthetic presented to others through appearance and apparel matters.

However, while business attire has been the de facto norm in corporate America for centuries, the hard-and-fast rules about corporate dress seem to be shifting.  Younger generations now feel that a person should only be judged by their inner qualities, not their outward appearance.   They argue that such things as casual clothing, tattoos, piercings, and unusual hair color don’t matter as long as an employee is intelligent, talented, skilled, and hard-working.  They also think that how a person looks on the outside (hygiene, attire, appearance) won’t influence how that person is perceived by others.  They ascribe to the wisdom that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and that one cannot tell a person’s character by his appearance.

That raises many questions about whether appearance still matters.  Does employee business attire really matter for a company’s success?  And does attire impact an individual’s success? In today’s changing work landscape, what constitutes professional versus unprofessional attire and appearance?  Is there still a clear line between what is and isn’t deemed ‘professional appearance’?  In today’s individualistic, casual culture, does the phrase ‘dress for success’ still have meaning?

Does Attire Still Matter?

Given today’s evolving views on attire, should appearance have any bearing on a person’s employability and career success?  Promotions?  Salary increases?  Bonuses?  If what a person wears neither enhances nor diminishes IQ or skills, does it or should it still affect career success?  The answer used to be a firm, unequivocal yes.  For decades, studies had proven that those with the best outward appearance (sharp but conservative attire, meticulous grooming, poised and confident) earned the most money and got the best jobs and promotions. It wasn’t so much the early bird that got the worm as much as the best-dressed bird.

But is that still true today?  Times are changing.  The management trend is toward a more relaxed workplace, in both space design and employee attire.  Increasingly, opulent management offices are being replaced by open work spaces.  Also, the HR Departments of many successful companies are adopting much more laid back approaches to employee attire and appearance.

Case in point.  In 2013, a person interviewing for an engineering/developer position at Google asked on Quora if jeans and a t-shirt was appropriate attire to wear to the job interview.  Once upon a time not so long ago, the answer would have been a definitive, resounding N-O!  However, Gayle Laakmann McDowell, Ex-Googler and author of Cracking the Coding Interview, replied that wearing jeans and a t-shirt to the interview was totally fine, but loosely recommended wearing jeans and a dress shirt “because, hey, why not?”  She added that really, no one cares. As a former member of the Google hiring committee, McDowell indicated that she had never seen anyone comment (in their feedback or even just in conversation) on how a candidate dressed.  As a final remark, she suggested that as a rule of thumb, a person should dress one small step up from the interviewers.  Since the vast majority of Google employees simply wear jeans and t-shirts to work, it’s not much of a leap to dress one small step up from that standard.

Google is perhaps the first and foremost example of the laid back corporate culture.  In fact, one of the company’s 10 principle philosophies is that “you can be serious without a suit.” Not only is the dress code casual, but the overall look and feel of the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California is also laid back and fun.  However, legendary Google is not alone in this HR shift.   Zappos, Facebook, Electronic Arts, Twitter, Genentech, AOL, Mars, and of course Apple (to name just a few) are all major companies that have adopted a more casual workplace atmosphere, including a relaxed dress code.  If so many major companies have gone ‘casual’ and not just on Fridays, does that mean that dress and success are no longer inextricably linked?  Are suits and business attire another dying relic?

Dress Code 2.0

For those that think that business attire and strict dress codes are fast becoming a thing of the past, think again.  Just as some companies are adopting a more relaxed dress code to attract and retain talented hires and spur creativity, other companies are going in the opposite direction.

Indeed, although the tech boom brought with it a laissez-faire attitude to dress code — adding business casual to business vocabulary – there is a growing trend moving business attire back to where it once was. Big business is going back to a more formal dress code, realizing that they only have one opportunity to impress their clients.

The Middle of the Road

Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to employee attire, some companies have opted to offer different dress codes for different departments.  In a department dealing with clients, a manager might be expected to wear business attire… a suit and dress shoes.  But the accounting and IT departments in that same company, who never deal with customers, might be allowed to wear jeans and casual shoes. Customer-engaging staff would dress in a way that is suited to the audience.  The approach is that the fashion should fit the function.  There might be a designated day that allows for business casual attire.

While traditional business attire may sound stuffy, companies understand that clients must be thought of as first priority. Proper attire leaves an invaluable professional impression on clients.  Overall, customer perception must be the underlying factor in making any business decision, even the menial ones. The company benefits by forever putting its best foot forward.  And, in turn, employees who show that they care about the company by dressing for success are more likely to do well also.

Pride in Appearance

To be clear, people who succeed in business come in every shape, size and personality type.  They wear all kinds of clothes.  Smart and successful people don’t necessarily need to dress a certain way to be successful.  And not every day requires the time and attention (and cost) for formal business attire. Some days, sitting behind a computer screen for eight uninterrupted hours really begs for nothing more than comfortable, casual attire.

However, the truth is that what is presented on the outside often speaks (either accurately or inaccurately) to what’s on the inside.  It is perhaps a bit too optimistic, to the point of naïve, to think that people will only judge based on a person’s inner qualities.  Before one ever gets to know a person, they “see” them first.  Before the first word is ever uttered, impressions are formed and judgments are being made.  Tailored clothes = sharp mind.   Wrinkled shirt = sloppy work habits.  Does that mean that a person wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt is unqualified or incapable?  Of course not.  Could that attire give that impression?  It could.  Does that matter?  It depends on who is getting that impression?  A client.  Definitely.  A coworker.  Perhaps.  A boss.  Absolutely.  It has been proven that dressing well can increase a person’s income and increases the chances of getting promoted.  Moreover, dressing well is important to one’s self-respect and composure.

So, despite new trends to dress down and relax, dressing for success still matters at certain times and places, based on the context.  Companies can dare to create Dress Codes that aren’t a one-size-fits-all approach and offer options based on audience.  Ultimately, attire should be a matter of self-pride.  Employees who want to make a good impression with clients, bosses and coworkers would do well to remember that appearance does matter… will always matter…. as long as people have eyes and can see.

Quote of the Week

“Great men are seldom over-scrupulous in the arrangement of their attire.” Charles Dickens


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